Mistah Kurtz – he dead.
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
When it comes to American wars, history has a kinky habit of repeating itself as farce over and over again. So now the Pentagon has been plunged into turmoil because General Stanley McChrystal, former United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization commander in Afghanistan, was featured unplugged in a Rolling Stone magazine interview.
Those were the days when the Washington Post used to bring down a president (now the Post, as well as The New York Times, prefer war, on Iraq, on AfPak, on Iran). Gonzo master Hunter S Thompson anyway must be celebrating with heavenly tequila shots in his wild and crazy tomb; Rolling Stone after all managed to bring down a general – to the sound of The End by The Doors.
Which brings us to Francis Ford Coppola using The Doors to start Apocalypse Now – or the US winning the Vietnam War (only) on film. McChrystal could be portrayed as a mix of Captain Willard and the original Mistah Kurtz of Conrad’s masterpiece, the literary model for Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. Both warrior-intellectuals – one about to cross to the heart of darkness, the other already there.
Although hailed by a wildly sycophantic media as a hero, McChrystal, like Willard, is essentially a trained killer, the head of a killing squad in Iraq active way before the “surge”, the same “surge” which was sculpted in stone in Washington as paving the way for an American “victory” (while generating profitable side products such as Oscar winner for Best Picture The Hurt Locker).
Sooner or later a Kurtzean McChrystal character will end up in a Hollywood blockbuster. The US lost the war in Vietnam but won it on screen. The US is losing the war in Iraq but it’s already winning it on screen. And the US will lose the war in AfPak and will win it on screen.
TS Eliot used “Mistah Kurtz – he dead” as the epigraph of the poem The Hollow Men. According to the Rolling Stone interview, McChrystal’s band of brothers is a “handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs” who refer to themselves as the South Park-esque Team America. Well, Team America is more like a Facebook version of Eliot’s Hollow Men:
Our dried voices, when we whisper together are quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass or rats’ feet over broken glass.
No wonder President Barack Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” by a roomful of Pentagon brass when he met McChrystal. Obama is a progressive urban intellectual. He could not but mistrust McChrystal, his band of brothers, in fact much of the coterie of killers and functionaries who populate the sprawling industrial-military complex. What’s ironic is that at the same time the functionaries of empire could not but mistrust the phalanx of Obama advisers who didn’t and don’t have a clue about “the mission”.
So what’s “the mission” in AfPak? For the Obama team it’s rather to use Afghanistan as a pawn to expand the already abysmal fissure between the US and Iran, and to throw Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Wahhabi Saudi Arabia at each other’s throats.
But for the industrial-military complex it goes way beyond. It’s about the new great game in Eurasia. It’s about the Pentagon’s full “spectrum dominance doctrine”, which presupposes setting up strategic Afghan bases to control and survey strategic competitors Russia and China very close to their borders. It’s still about the late 1990s all over again; to isolate or crush or bribe the Taliban so the ultimate pipe-dream – the Trans-Afghan Pipeline (TAP) – can be built to carry Turkmen gas to Western markets, and not the rival, anathema IP (Iran-Pakistan) pipeline. In a nutshell, it’s about infinite war.
It’s easy to forget – as much of US corporate media do – that in the midst of all the “runaway general” hoopla, McChrystal’s own COIN (counter-insurgency) strategy in Afghanistan had already been reduced, according to his own neologism, to “Chaos-istan” for quite some time. To apply counter-insurgency en-masse against Pashtun brothers and cousins is a foolish recipe for failure. Washington does not even know who the “enemy” is; Afghans on the other hand see it as a war of Christian foreign invaders against the Pashtun nation.
The recipe was originally “designed” by the new general in AfPak, McChrystal’s boss, Central Command chief David “I’m always positioning myself to 2012” Petraeus, the conceptual hero of the “surge” in Iraq. Meet the new general, (not quite the) same as the old general; let’s say Petraeus is a silkier version of Captain Willard, without the Kurtzean overtones of McChrystal. Cue that Peter Townshend power chord: “Won’t be fooled again.” Or will we?
The McChrystal goes rogue/McChrystal gets fired story is yet one more classic Pentagon non-event magnified to dementia. What the general unplugged to Rolling Stone was basically a collection of generic, mild and milder insults to US civilians. The “warrior-intellectual” never gave any sign he was engaging in specific, detailed criticism of the overall military strategy; after all, the Pentagon’s “full-spectrum dominance” cannot be really sold for what it is. And even Obama has stated on the record that replacing a general with another general does not mean a change in strategy. Is there a strategy? Yes – infinite war; but the Pentagon won’t allow it to be spelled out.
It’s been a long time since the immense, absurdly expensive, the-road-goes-on-forever American war obsession bore any relation whatsoever to politics and reality. It pertains to fiction – as the dance of the generals goes on, as Eliot would say, “in this hollow valley”. And these fictional steps are dead-certain to punctuate “this broken jaw of our lost kingdoms” for years and years to come.